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July 29, 2008

’Chosen Soldier’: ’A New Band of Brothers’

Chosen_soldier_2 Following up on my previous post about the qualities sought in recruits for Green Beret school, I wanted to elaborate on the issue of diversity. I love the picture Dick Couch offers in his book Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior of what an Special Forces (SF) group looks like. The picture of America that SF offers the rest of the world is not insignificant.

How soldiers represent our nation in other countries does matter. As historian Stephen Ambrose has mentioned, “one of the most comforting sights for the war-weary citizens of France or Belgium was a patrol of American GIs coming into their village.” And as Chuck has mentioned before, “the sight of those American kids meant cigarettes, candy, c-rations, and freedom. They had come not to conquer or terrorize but to liberate.”

But, as Couch notes, “that was an all-white patrol of GIs in a western European village. Afghanistan and Iraq offer none of the homogeneity found in western Europe during the last world war.”

So diversity is sought in SF not in order to create a “racial or ethnic balance that mirrors our national demographic.” Rather, it’s strategic. “[I]n the military, especially in SOF [Special operations forces, which encompasses all branches], and most certainly in Army Special Forces, diversity itself is an operational advantage,” writes Couch. Continuing, “Diverse skills and ethnic backgrounds bring a more multidimensional approach to cross-cultural issues that Special Forces teams have to deal with on a routine basis. The more diverse the members of an SF detachment, the better the thinking that may go into problem solving in a cross-cultural environment.”

Continue reading "’Chosen Soldier’: ’A New Band of Brothers’" »

July 28, 2008

’Chosen Soldier’: Time and Prudence

Chosen_soldier_2Time, of course, is a valuable commodity for Army Special Forces (SF). Being a Green Beret requires a man to spend a lot of time on deployment—in turn, taking a lot of time away from family. And although there are five active groups compared to two National Guard groups within SF, the “Guard groups . . . are very busy. [They] are spending a great deal of time overseas and a great deal of time in harm’s way.”

And though you may have heard about animosity between active-duty soldiers and so-called “part-timers” (National Guard), the “active groups have no problem integrating their guardsmen into their deploying units. In reality, they’ve no choice. Since 9/11, SF soldiers in the active groups are deployed 270 to 275 days a year.” And the guardsmen also “are gone a great deal of the time,” sometimes “as much or more than their active-duty brothers.”

As I’ve written previously, in today’s war in the Middle East, the Green Berets are a critical element. In light of their particular significance in this point of history, Dick Couch has written Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior, the subject of my book-blogging this summer. Actually, it may likely go into the fall. While the Green Berets’ time is well-structured, mine has been pulled in numerous directions. Hence, the three-plus weeks between my last post on Couch’s book and this one!

So I have been reading more about the structure of SF (that term, by the way, designates only the Army Special Forces, not that of all the branches), and the issues of time and prudence are what currently stand out.

Continue reading "’Chosen Soldier’: Time and Prudence" »

June 30, 2008

’Chosen Soldier’: Liberators or Occupiers?

Chosen_soldier_2 The PR struggle America wrestles with today is the nature or role of our troops in the Middle East. We may see ourselves as liberators, but whether we like it or not, we’re viewed as occupiers. “To the extent we are seen as occupiers, or are portrayed as occupiers by al-Qaeda, Al Jazeera, and insurgent groups, our job is that much harder,” writes Dick Couch in Chosen Soldier. “A recent study of suicide bombers revealed that the common thread that ran through their twisted thinking was their conviction that Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan are an occupying force.”

To recap, this summer I’ll periodically be blogging about Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior by Dick Couch, who has written a number of non-fiction and fiction books about military life. Chosen Soldier focuses on the recruitment and training of Army Special Forces, or the Green Berets. On one level, this non-leisurely summer reading is a personal interest.

But on another level, the goal is to understand better this current global war that we, for better or worse, nonetheless are caught up in—and what might lead us out of it. Which is where the Green Berets come in: In this particularly different war, we need a different, more efficient type of warrior. As I wrote in the last post, this “most essential warrior” not only will fight physically, but also intellectually. They infiltrate a region’s culture, gaining the trust of the locals and gleaning invaluable information about who the real enemy is, as that enemy is hidden among innocent communities. Not only that, the Green Berets also act as teachers, equipping the people to work out their own liberation.

So while we entered this war being viewed by some—including some in the United States—as an occupying force, the Green Berets and the rest of special forces could lead us to be seen as liberators. This would be not just PR damage control, but truly providing liberation to people in the Middle East by empowering them to control their destiny. What that may end up looking like, we must realize, is not Western-style democracy. After all, as Couch notes, one argument used against U.S. engagement in counterinsurgency is the Duarte regime in El Salvador and its alleged “human-rights violations and the infamous death squads.”

Continue reading "’Chosen Soldier’: Liberators or Occupiers?" »

June 17, 2008

’Chosen Soldier’: ’Our most essential warrior’

Chosen_soldier_2 “We are currently locked in an insurgent war, one that’s likely to go on for a very long while,” writes Dick Couch, author of Chosen Soldier: The Making of a Special Forces Warrior and many other books. Chosen Soldier is the main book I’ll be blogging about this summer. This niche of the military—the Green Berets—is a significant detail of a larger issue that will figure prominently, not only in the upcoming election, but also in our nation’s near future and that of the rest of the free world.

This war with terrorists and religious radicals in the Middle East has made both our technology and “conventional military superiority” nearly irrelevant. What’s needed now is getting an “in” with the locals in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. They are the ones who can tell our soldiers who the enemy is. “Simply stated, if we lose or fail to gain the popular support of the people, we lose it all,” writes Couch in the introduction to his book. “Our initial victories in Afghanistan and Iraq will have been for nothing.”

(I’ll leave alone whether or not we should have entered this “war on terror” in the first place. Regardless, we’re in it now. So we have to be savvy about where we are and what we’re now doing there.)

So, we are in a very different war, indeed. (For example, as Anne highlighted and I referred to in my first post on Chosen Soldier, we’re dealing with suicide bombers the age of U.S. high school freshmen.) It is one that requires intelligence as much as—really, much more than—it requires brute strength. And that’s where our branches’ special operation forces come in—namely, Army Special Forces (SF), or Green Berets. As Couch writes, “Special Forces are the most valuable asset on this battlefield. The Special Forces soldier is the most important man in uniform—our most essential warrior.”

Continue reading "’Chosen Soldier’: ’Our most essential warrior’" »

June 11, 2008

I’ll Never Mock that Beret Again

Greenberetjfk Catherine posted a beautiful picture the other day, capturing the joy on a loved one’s face when her brother returned home from the war. It brought tears to my eyes (photographers are great artists too)—not the least because it hit home for me, when at another time I would only be a sympathetic observer.

I had always been proud and appreciative of all our military men and women, for their dedication and sacrifice, doing what we civilians would not or could not do. And I don’t think they are compensated enough. But what they actually did seemed so far away from me, the stuff of news reports and stories far removed from my life. I had this vague, romanticized vision of active-duty military: the training, the battles, the heartbreaking tales of heroism. And to illustrate my ignorant disconnect from that life, I found the announcement of the black beret becoming standard wear for the Army, well, disappointing. I couldn’t take a beret seriously. It didn’t "look tough."

But as I express in the title of this post, I’ll never make fun of that beret again, even if they make it orange with purple polka-dots (please don’t)—because what it represents is so meaningful. Namely the Green Beret: What those men go through to get that Green Beret, and what they do once they’ve earned it, is hugely significant indeed.

Someone very close to me is now going through training with Special Forces, specializing in medicine. (Ok: All you in the military, bear with me if my terminology is “off.” I’m still learning. But feel free to share your insights and experiences in the comment section.)

So I now hear on a daily basis many of the details of that training and intense study. (And the interesting anecdotes—and pranks that, apparently, are repeated among medics through the years—I’ll spare you any examples . . . ) And at times, it makes me feel very small—not in a shameful way, just amazed at all that one goes through to get that Green Beret.

Continue reading "I’ll Never Mock that Beret Again" »

September 28, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Moment of inspiration

Prayinghands Like my heroine Harriet Vane, I'm incurably honest in matters of literary criticism. Which is why I have to say that Francis Thompson (1859-1907), British poet featured in The Book of Uncommon Prayer, wrote incredibly hokey poems.

Take the theme of what it would have been like for the Lord Jesus Christ to come to earth as a little child. Right there you have the material for a haunting, powerful poem. From Thompson, we get this:

I should think that I would cry
For my house all made of sky;
I would look about the air
And wonder where the angels were;
And at waking 'twould distress me --
Not an angel there to dress me.

"Not an angel there to dress me"?

I'm sorry, that's just . . . hokey.

Which makes it all more amazing to me that Francis Thompson also wrote one of the best known, best loved, most beautiful and moving poems in the entire Christian tradition. To wit:

Continue reading "Blog-a-Book: Moment of inspiration" »

September 27, 2007

Blog-a-Book: More on the power of intercessory prayer

To the beautiful passage from Dostoevsky on the value of prayer (and I wish, by the way, that someone would tell me how to spell his name right -- we seem to have both spellings featured here on the blog), add this from Tennyson's Morte D'Arthur:

    More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

May our voices never cease to rise "night and day" to God on behalf of each other.

September 17, 2007

Blog-a-book: Criticize with grace


When atheist Sam Harris wrote his 2004 bestseller The End of Faith, a radical attack on religious belief in any form, he was prepared for strong rebuttals from Christians.

What may have surprised him was the vitriol in which many of the emails and letters were couched. The most hostile messages came from Christians (not Muslims or Hindus). "The truth is," he explained in the forward to his latest bestseller, Letter to a Christian Nation, "that many who claim to be transformed by God's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism."

"How do I know this?" he asked rhetorically. "The most disturbed of my correspondents always cite chapter and verse." Indeed, Letter to a Christian Nation is his response to those vituperative critics and yet another weapon in the armory of people hostile to Christianity.

I'd love to write that passage off as just more anti-Christian bias from an intolerant elitist media. But I can't. Number one, I've seen too many similar letters and other writings from Christians. Number two, the above passage isn't from some prejudiced secular publication -- it's from Christianity Today.

Make sure you don't miss the point of this article. David Aikman is not saying here that Christians are never to criticize -- some things need criticism. What he's saying is that we are to criticize "with grace."

Which brings me to today's blog-a-book post. I was delighted to find a very old favorite in The Book of Uncommon Prayer, a poem by C. S. Lewis that's been on my bulletin board for many years. It contains a truth I struggle (and sometimes fail) to remember, a truth relevant to the Aikman article and to all of us Christians who play any part in the public arena. Here it is in its entirety:

Continue reading "Blog-a-book: Criticize with grace" »

Book guilt

Book_stack I have book guilt. Do you know what I mean? I write books, and my friends write books (which I get to read in various stages of publication) and I review books for several publications, and sometimes other writers request endorsements, so I read their books, and I have a long list of books I want to read and I generally have a stack of five or so by my bedside table. I have a running tab at the library. I have only just realized really that I will never actually be able to read everything I want to read (as Michael Douglas said, "Oh, mortality!") and that has me a little panicked. Sometimes I realize that reading is not always the same thing as living, and that shocks me.

Oh, and then I agree to read books and blog about them... and fail hopelessly.  More on Chesterton's Father Brown soon.

September 13, 2007

Blog-a-book: Life out of death

Two_cities Under Kristine’s last post on A Tale of Two Cities, Elizabeth comments,

So is Dickens' point the sacrifice of others is required to bring life out of death? Will any love do this? Certainly Mr Carton's words might lead me to think Dickens was showing his actions were based on faith in gospel promises. Is there any record of what Dickens intended to convey by this novel? Is it more than a political statement? If you can answer these questions or point me in a direction to look for them, I would appreciate it.

Those are excellent questions, and I apologize for taking so long to get back to this topic.

When I look at the “big picture” of A Tale of Two Cities—which is a little easier to do than with most Dickens novels because of both its relative shortness and its structure—I see a certain cycle. The phrase “a vicious cycle,” in fact, might have been invented expressly to describe this story. A certain group of people are horribly oppressed for many years. They rise up and throw off their oppressors, and then they in turn become the oppressors.

It’s interesting to note that Dickens holds no one side in the conflict completely to blame; nor he does he consider either side completely free from blame. He sympathizes in turn with the poor being oppressed, and with the rich whom they later murder indiscriminately when they come to power. Despite the fact that his own childhood poverty and struggles (echoed in David Copperfield and other books) would never stop haunting him, and that his heart was consequently with the poor all his life, he refuses—unlike many other authors—to fall into the easy trap of justifying everything they do to avenge themselves on their tormentors.

(Spoilers after the jump)

Continue reading "Blog-a-book: Life out of death" »

September 12, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Wittily Ever After

Cyrano2 [Ed. note: Major Cyrano spoilers below!]

Cyrano has seemed to play the part of a noble hero through most of this story, but after Act V's denouement, it is hard to see him as more than a noble fool. He had won the heart of his beloved, yet he refused to accept it, instead allowing her to languish in mourning for a love that she hadn't even lost.

Following Christian's death, Roxane had joined a convent to spend the rest of her days grieving her late husband. The ever faithful Cyrano spends the remainder of his life offering her -- and the nuns -- abundant friendship, bringing weekly updates and conversation. Yet he also continues to be an outspoken public figure, and eventually his enemies catch up to him.

Run through
  By a hero's sword, that's what I said, but look!
  Here is my real fate, struck from behind
  With a lump of wood, by a servant -- even my death
  Will have been laughable.

Continue reading "Blog-a-Book: Wittily Ever After" »

September 06, 2007

Blog-a-Book: More ideas on creative grace

Prayinghands My previous blog-a-book post dealt with a rather unusual kind of grace. But Charles Lamb has Robert Herrick beat in that department. I love this idea:

I own that I am disposed to say grace upon twenty other occasions in the course of the day besides my dinner. I want a form for setting out upon a pleasant walk, for a moonlight ramble, for a friendly meeting, or a solved problem. Why have we none for books, those spiritual repasts -- a grace before Milton -- a grace before Shakespeare -- a devotional exercise proper to be said before reading The Faerie Queene?

Charles Lamb

What are some occasions that you think would be appropriate for saying grace?

September 04, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Nothing’s Fair in Love and War

Cyrano2 Act III of Cyrano ended with a marriage, so perphaps it shouldn't be surprising that Act IV ends with a funeral of sorts. Cyrano, Christian, and the cadets have traveled to battle against the Spaniards, and the supplies have been depleted. The men are famished (and complaining incessantly about it), morale is non-existent, and they soon learn that De Guiche has drawn the enemy to their location, with an attack expected within the hour. It is a suicide mission. "A hundred to one, eh?" De Guiche tells Cyrano. "You'll enjoy today."

Cyrano, meanwhile, has been sneaking past Spanish lines daily -- sometimes multiple times a day -- to send off "Christian's" notes of affection to Roxane. And the letters have had such an impact on the woman that she braves the battlezone herself in order to stand in her husband's presence again. In return, her presence -- along with the food she smuggled in -- emboldens the cadets to stand their ground against the coming warriors, though Cyrano, De Guiche, and Christian implore her to leave the scene.

She refuses and proclaims her undying commitment to Christian. Yet he is dismayed to hear Roxane profess that she is in love with his "soul" rather than his body, realizing that it is actually Cyrano's soul that has so moved her. And Christian finally realizes that his mentor's poetic words were not an act at all. Then, in a noble but painful exhange, Cyrano and Christian argue over who is more worthy of their beloved's heart.

"Why should you lose the hope of happiness," asks Christian, "because I'm handsome? No! It's too unfair."

Continue reading "Blog-a-Book: Nothing’s Fair in Love and War" »

August 31, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Jeeves in the Offing II or Maybe III

Jeeves_and_wooster In a previous post, I told the story of my abysmal failure at using the “Dog Whisperer’s” technique to show the dog who the leader was. This past weekend I went again to visit Papa Moreland and his doggies. Only this time I wasn’t so certain of my ability to use the “Dog Whisperer” techniques, so with a more cautious manner, I approached the moose of a Labrador retriever, Luke, whom I’ve given the sobriquet The Brat. 

Before I could begin my second doggie psychology therapy session, Papa put Luke outside. Oh how I squirmed -- my limited time was being eaten away with (enjoyable) people conversation! Finally, the pressure became too great, and I made a break from the humans to venture outdoors to “chat” with The Brat.   

The Brat’s got the command to “sit” down pretty well, but he doesn’t stay there—he edges ever closer to his target—in this case me and my “petting” hand. I thought I had things under “Whisper” control, which was especially important because The Brat had just been cavorting in a muddy yard. My intension was to pay attention to him, make him mind, and also keep him from ruining my outfit. I saw him edging my way so I decided to try the Whisperer’s mommy-hand-to-the-side-of-the-throat technique to keep the 100-pound Brattling in his place, but lickety-split he sidled up to me and soon I was covered in red.   

To be brutally honest, Round II once again went to that big beautiful black-coated Brat. For a second, I titled my ear toward heaven wondering if I heard the tinkle of laughter, but no, it must have been the wind.

This event brought to my mind one scene in Jeeves in the Offing which includes a dachshund named Poppet, a cat named Augustus, a human named Upjohn, and a lake.

Continue reading "Blog-a-Book: Jeeves in the Offing II or Maybe III" »

August 30, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Cyrano’s Loonier Landing

Cyrano2 In Act III, Cyrano may have become the Chuck Norris of wit -- delivering an endless supply of (rhetorical) lashings, himself impenetrable to an almost inhuman degree. His words have not only stolen the heart of the woman of his dreams, albeit through another's mouth, but he brilliantly fends off her would-be paramour by bantering as a crazy person. He is unfazed, and seemingly unable to be fazed.

The centerpiece of this display is the famous balcony scene, where Christian and Roxane have a romantic exchange -- in verse -- the former being coached by Cyrano from his hiding place in the shadows. Prior to that encounter, Christian had attempted to impress his love by his own poetic affection. He failed, and, in a rather cold response, she left and suggested he try again later. With Cyrano's assistance, however, Roxane is thoroughly charmed and enamored; Cyrano is, in turn, elated that she has been so moved by *his* words even more than Christian's looks.

Continue reading "Blog-a-Book: Cyrano’s Loonier Landing" »

August 29, 2007

Blog-a-Book: ’Not for any gains’

Prayinghands Next time someone tells you that Christians only believe in God because they're afraid of hell, you might share this with that person.

O God, I love thee, I love thee --
Not out of hope of heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
   In the everlasting burning.
Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
   Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails and lance,
Mocked and marrèd countenance,
   Sorrows passing number,
   Sweat and care and cumber,
Yea and death, and this for me,
   And thou couldst see me sinning:
Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu so much in love with me?
Not for heaven's sake; not to be
Out of hell by loving thee;
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do love and I will love thee:
What must I love thee, Lord, for then? --
For being my king and God. Amen.

-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

As you can see, the Book of Uncommon Prayer has some pretty great selections from Hopkins. But I noticed that my favorite is missing. Fortunately, Diane has already posted it here, so you can have a Hopkins twofer!

August 28, 2007

Blog-a-Book: A different kind of grace

Prayinghands Here, a little child, I stand,
Heaving up my either hand;
Cold as paddocks though they be,
Here I lift them up to thee,
For a benison to fall
On our meat and on our all.

--Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Wikipedia tells us that paddocks, in this context, is another word for toads. Nowadays it might be considered a bit unusual to teach your child to pray, "Dear Lord, I lift my toad-like hands to you . . ." But you've got to admit, at least it's a bit of a change from the standard "God is great, God is good . . ."

August 22, 2007

Blog-a-Book: A ’Masculine Fantasy?’

My summer reading has taken a few twists and turns. Besides getting distracted by reading Crime & Punishment, The Reagan Diaries, and an assortment of other small readings, I did set out, at the beginning of summer, to write several blogs about Jeeves in the Offing. Alas, I woke up the other day realizing that I’d gulped instead of savored the novel, making nary a note about either its cleverly worded sentences or hilarious scenes to continue my efforts to help garner a few more Wodehouse fans. Don't worry though, I promise to reread sections so I can post another review.

Before I do, I ran across an old article I had read before in the New Criterion article by another Wodehouse fan, Roger Kimball, titled "The Genius of Wodehouse." In his article, Kimball mentions Wodehouse’s authorized biographer and family friend, Frances Donaldson, who says that only one in ten Wodehouse fans are women. Shock! Gasp! Choke! Donaldson said Wodehouse’s Bertie and Jeeves books are “masculine fantasy,” which “women as a whole” don’t care to read. 

I know I started reading these novels in the '70s, and most of the people I know who are Wodehouse fans are also women. Here’s my question: what, if anything, changed over the years that make Wodehouse’s “masculine” novels palatable to women?

August 21, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Dostoyevsky on intercession

PrayinghandsDo you ever feel overwhelmed when you try to pray for other people? I'm afraid I do. It's not that I don't want to pray for others -- I love doing it and consider it a privilege to offer what little help I can in this way. It's just that sometimes the realization of just how many people are in need, and how great those needs are, that comes when we start to pray for them can weigh on the heart.

And let's not even go into the guilt of promising to pray for someone and then realizing you forgot to do it.

These words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's, quoted in The Book of Uncommon Prayer, may take a little poetic license with theology, but they offer very real encouragement and refreshment for intercessors -- not by minimizing the numbers or the need, but by showing us that our contributions, small and faulty as they seem to us, may mean more than we ever knew. I love this passage and plan to keep going back to it whenever I start feeling bogged down and frustrated in my prayer life again; I hope many of you will be blessed by it as well.

. . . Remember also, every day and whenever you can, repeat to yourself, "Lord, have mercy on all who come before Thee today." For every hour and every moment thousands of people leave their life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And so many of them depart alone, unknown, in sadness and sorrow that no one will mourn them, or even know whether they had lived or not. And so, perhaps from the other end of the earth, your prayer for their repose will rise up to God, though you did not know them, nor they you. How touching it must be to a soul, coming in fear before the Lord, to feel at that moment that someone is praying for him, too, that there is still a fellow creature on earth who loves him. And God will look upon you both with more mercy, for if you have so pitied him, how much more will He who is infinitely more merciful and loving than you. And He will forgive him for your sake.

August 20, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Cooking up a Dilemma

Cyrano2 Act II of Cyrano could be entitled "Poetic Justice." All 11 scenes of the act take place in the bakery of Ragueneau, the cook and aspiring poet who wraps his pastries in sonnets he has written. He is preparing to host a gathering of fellow writers and daftly composing a new work in the midst of managing his bakers -- not unlike the handiwork of the rhyming, duelling Cyrano, whose recent exploits have already become legendary. Poetically (ahem), the bakery is the location of Cyrano's meeting with Roxane.

And as women are prone to do to men whom their beauty has captivated, Roxane punctures Cyrano's aura of confidence and suavity. Thus far, she seems to be the only one capable of doing so. The extent of our hero's swagger is brought fully to bear when he, while waiting for Roxane, confronts a musketeer who is flirting with Ragueneau's wife. The musketeer doesn't dare even offer up a quick verbal jab about Cyrano's nose.

Still, at least three times in this act is Cyrano left speechless on account -- directly or indirectly -- of his adored. When she enters the shop, Cyrano is prepared with a letter announcing his affections, and he draws some hope when Roxane thanks him for humiliating her would-be fiance. "So, madam, it was not my nose...that was behind our quarrel, but your fair features. Good."

Continue reading "Blog-a-Book: Cooking up a Dilemma" »

How Do You Like the Scenery?

Cautionswerving2 I consider myself a safe driver. While I may not follow the rules “to a T" (I have had a few crazy experiences), I am in control of my car and prefer it that way. It’s hard for me to sit in the passenger seat and let someone else drive, especially when I’m not 100 percent confident that we’ll get back out in one piece!

When this happens to me (only occasionally), I find myself, sadly, not relaxing but instead pressing the floor as hard as I can with my foot in hopes that we will stop in time before hitting the car in front of us. I’ve been thinking about this lately. I need to relax more and trust that my friends know what they’re doing! They have been doing this just as long as me, if not longer!

I think this is just the same with God. The question is: Do I trust that God knows what He’s doing? More importantly, Does He know where He’s taking me?

The answer: Of course He does! But the question for me is will I let Him drive and take me to a destination that only He knows, and enjoy the scenery as we go?

Jen Marshall addresses this struggle.

Continue reading "How Do You Like the Scenery?" »

August 17, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Amy Tan, rebellious Christian teen

Quill_pen OK, that entry title is a little misleading. I don't think Amy Tan is a Christian in the "born-again" sense that most of us here would understand, but her father was a Christian and she was raised in a Christian church. As she entered her teen years, she began to stray from the straight and narrow -- for example, reading "forbidden books, including Catcher in the Rye, which I had to buy twice because Christian family friends confiscated it from me."

When Tan got caught reading a book on sexuality, her mother enlisted the help of the pastor. Tan writes in The Opposite of Fate:

The minister, whose son had turned me down when I asked him to a Sadie Hawkins Day dance, came to our house to give me good counsel. He said, "If you can just be patient, if you can keep your virtue, one day, God willing" -- here he swept out his arms, envisioning the heavenly promise -- "hundreds of young men will be lined up around the block, waiting to ask you out!" And I thought to myself, Exactly what kind of fool does he take me for?

Besides the glaringly obvious question of why Christians who can't read Catcher in the Rye are going to dances, Tan's story is sadly familiar. In our rush to defend God, we sometimes twist the whole "all things work together for good" thing into a genie-in-a-bottle kind of Christianity. If you can just hold onto your virtue, God will bring you the perfect spouse, or a hundred boyfriends. It's too bad that Tan's skepticism led her away from the church, but she was right to assume there was something foolish about the pastor's statement, well-intentioned though it may have been.

Continue reading "Blog-a-Book: Amy Tan, rebellious Christian teen" »

Blog-a-Book: ’A Tale of Two Cities’ springs back to life

Two_cities As promised, Gina and I are taking over A Tale of Two Cities from Catherine and will be talking about some of the great themes in the book. One of the things that makes Dickens a genius as a writer is the way he takes a theme and weaves it through an entire book. The very first thing we know about Pip in Great Expectations is that he is an orphan, and it turns out that being alone in the world is a major theme in that novel. The opening scenes of Bleak House introduce us to the chancery court, a place that will symbolize the fruitlessness of hanging one's hopes on improbable dreams.

Likewise, A Tale of Two Cities opens with its own theme. The first section is titled "Recalled to Life," referring to the enigmatic message that informs a banker that one of his clients has been released from prison in France after years of captivity, years in which he had often been presumed dead. This restoration of life where none was thought to be found is one of the major themes of the book. Dickens builds on his theme in the early chapters by referring to the American Revolution, the birth of a new country, and of course his entire book is set in the French Revolution, from which would spring a new French republic where there had once been a monarchy. In the days of the revolution, it would have been difficult to imagine that anything lifelike could emerge from the carnage.

In chapter 5 of the first section, set several years before the French Revolution took hold, Dickens wrote of a cask of wine that breaks in the street, causing the starving Parisians to crawl in the dust to catch a few drops:

The wine was red wine, and had stained the ground on the narrow street in the suburb of Saint Antoine, in Paris, where it was spilled. It had stained many hands, too, and many faces, and many naked feet, and many wooden shoes. The hands of the man who sawed the wood left red marks on the billets; and the forehead of the woman who nursed her baby was stained with the stain of the old rag she wound about her head again [after using it to soak up some wine]. Those who had been greedy with the staves of the cask, had acquired a tigerish smear about the mouth; and one tall joker so besmirched, his head more out of a long squalid bag of a nightcap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees--BLOOD.

The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there.

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August 14, 2007

’Now and Not Yet’ Review

Nowandnotyetlarge I’ve been blogging off and on about Jennifer Marshall’s new book. Now my fellow intern Alyce and I have recently written a review on the book in a discussion format which is up on the BreakPoint website. If you’d like to read more about the book and get the dual perspective of two twenty-something women while being entertained with a lively discussion, click here!

August 09, 2007

Blog-a-Book: ’Two Cities’ under new management

Because of Catherine's upcoming trip and all its accompanying deadlines and pressures, Kristine and I are taking A Tale of Two Cities off her hands. Starting next week sometime, we'll be tag-teaming the book. As we've both read it already, expect more of a general discussion of themes, character, plot, and so forth than a close following of the twists and turns of the narrative. One thing I particularly hope to do is to see how certain themes tie in with some of the very same experiences undergone by some of the people Catherine and Zoe will be meeting (even though they're probably not going to be able to blog on the trip much). So in a sense, you could still call her our honorary book-blogger -- or divide us into the theoretical and the practical. :-)

Please join us in praying for a safe and productive journey for Catherine and Zoe and their friends.

Blog-a-Book: Overriding Autopilot

Cockpit2 I’m at the end of autopilot, as Jen Marshall would put it. Marshall gives a great illustration of what life is like before and after college. Up until graduation, every child, teen, and adult is on autopilot. She says:

Many of us grew up thinking [a home, kids, car, house, suburban lifestyle] would all come along as a matter of course. Those were the days of autopilot. Forward motion didn’t require much thought or deliberation; third grade propelled to fourth grade, fourth to fifth, and so on. Each fall brought new school clothes and lunchboxes, and every so often a new addition to the routine, like basketball or French or a new kid in class. Entering high school was a major milestone, but it only reset the clock for another four years. After that it’s fairly easy to coast through the next several years on autopilot. The course is well defined, and decisions come along on an established timetable: choose a college, choose a major, get a job (or go to grad school).

So as I sit here typing this, I can’t help but realize that I am at the very end of autopilot as I know it. I graduated from college, am finishing up my internship, and then voila, REAL WORLD, BABY! No one prepared me for this feeling, for these experiences, for real life (to be as cliché as possible)!

What happens next is completely unknown. And what frustrates many women in this situation is knowing that they have to face these uncertainties alone, with no life partner in tow, with no lover who automatically shows up in their automatic worlds of autopilot to whisk them away to happily ever after. No, the uncertainties are many, and the insecurities that come with it are dense. I use this word because sometimes they’re so overwhelming you don’t know what to do with them and can’t define them all.

This might just be me, but sometimes my mind gets so muddled that I don’t know what to think. I want to be hopeful, because I know God has the best for me in mind, but at the same time, I’m just depressed because nothing is the way I thought it would be by this time. I think a woman realizes, It’s not as easy as it looked when I was a child. She finds herself excited for the future but also wonders what’s to become of her.

This is when we must not give up! This is the time when our lives begin to really be changed, transformed, and the directions in which we’re headed become more defined and real. We become more confident in who we are and what we want to do.

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August 07, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Cyrano Knows Cyrano’s Nose

Cyrano2 Talk about a play within a play. Not only is the first act of Cyrano set around a stage production, but the title character is quite a show himself. Cyrano introduces himself to the story by interrupting the beginning of the play as the lead actor begins his first line. "Believe me," Cyrano insists, "Baro's play is worthless. It's my duty to interrupt it."

Montfleury enters the stage lacking any of the archetypal flair of a hero -- he's rotund, awkward, and pompous. By contrast, Cyrano makes a grand entrance, almost literally pushing Montfleury off the scene and commanding the attention of both the audience in the story and the audience watching Cyrano. (Christian, incidentally, quickly and discreetly has departed from the spotlight, in perhaps the only truly heroic action thus far, to rescue his friend Ligniere, who had angered "someone important.")

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Blog-a-Book: Enigmatic Emily

Prayinghands Emily Dickinson's entry in The Book of Uncommon Prayer is set up rather oddly. Not surprisingly to those familiar with the often ambivalent poet -- but surprisingly in a book of prayers -- the editors start off with a poem that seems cynical about prayer ("They fling their speech/By means of it in God's Ear/If then He hear"), then go on to one that embraces faith. Then there's a critique of God, then two more poems that express a longing for heaven. (Also, they leave out Dickinson's -- to say the least -- idiosyncratic punctuation, which I find I rather miss. It's one thing when an author can't punctuate properly; it's another when she's just being playful and eccentric.)

So, for example, we go from this:

He fumbles at your soul
As players at the keys
Before they drop full music on,
He stuns you by degrees,
Prepares your brittle nature
For the ethereal blow
By fainter hammers, further heard,
Then nearer -- then so slow
Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool --
Deals one imperial thunderbolt
That scalps your naked soul.

Directly to this:

This world is not conclusion;
    A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
    But positive, as sound.
It beckons and it baffles;
    Philosophies don't know,
And through a riddle, at the last,
    Sagacity must go.
To guess it puzzles scholars;
    To gain it, men have shown
Contempt of generations,
    And crucifixion known.

The biographical note calls Dickinson simply "the brilliant, enigmatic American poetess." Indeed she was.

August 06, 2007

How ’Bout a Little Off-Roading?

Offroading Lately I’ve been talking about focusing on what has been placed before you right now, in concordance with Jen Marshall’s book, Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century. Now, I would like to take a different angle. While we do need to focus on today instead of always thinking of tomorrow, we also cannot just live completely in today. If we don’t have a forward mindset at all, then what purpose do we have, in the end? If we don’t have Christ-minded thinking and a Christ-centered focus, then our today-focus won’t be worth the trouble.

“When our identity is anchored in Christ and we have a sense of belonging to Him,” says Marshall, “He becomes the reference point by which we set the course of our lives.”

As important as it is to not be worried about the future, we can’t stop thinking about it altogether. There is definitely a balance, and that balance is different for each person. We should set our sights on Christ; He is the best reference by which one could ever set his or her life! Think about it, how amazing would life be if every person modeled Jesus’ very footsteps? If everyone played the game completely by His guidelines?

Marshall uses an example of driver’s training to describe this concept. I can relate to her, because I, about five years ago, had to go through driver’s training as well. When I was learning to drive, I distinctly remember my instructor telling me not to focus on the road directly in front of my car. “Focus on the road a little bit ahead, ever so often glancing a bit further, and the car will easily maneuver those turns, since you have anticipated them and prepared for them,” is something like what he would say to me. He told me if I focused on the road directly in front of the car, that I wouldn’t be able to see what was coming, and the driving would be a lot more frantic, erratic, and accident-prone.

So how about a little off-roading?

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July 30, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Christ, ’Christian Realism,’ and True Horror

Peacock2 In a letter to a close friend, referred to only as “A,” Flannery O'Connor talks about the reactions to her short-story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, in the title story of which, a character called the Misfit murders an entire family.

I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and I have reported the progress of a few of them… when I see these stories described as horror I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.

Flannery, writing later to the same individual, endeavored to clarify the concept of “Christian Realism”:

The term "Christian Realism," has become necessary for me, perhaps in a purely academic way, because I find myself in a world where everybody has his compartment, puts you in yours, shuts the door and departs. One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

For Flannery, the reality of the Incarnation, like Jeremiah’s fire sealed up tight in his bones, formed the demarcation between horror and her patent “Christian realism.” So what happens when the audience that thinks God is dead addresses horror? Works like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the epically evil Kurtz screams out that very word when confronted with the blackness of the human heart, and movies like the recently released film Sunshine.

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July 26, 2007

Blog-a-Book: ’Jeeves in the Offing’

Jeeves_and_wooster Since I have recently been writing about the divine notion of laughter and joy, I thought it appropriate to pick a P. G. Wodehouse novel for blog-a-book. Besides laughter, another aspect of comedy is truth. Some suggest that comedy is really a falsification of reality, but as author Adam Thirlwell writes in the Guardian Unlimited, “There is no reason why comedy should force you to falsify….Only false comedy falsifies.” Comedies provide us with glimpses of our foibles and follies. That said, above all else, P. G. Wodehouse’s highest mission, and he said so himself, was to entertain. (See Wodehouse in His Own Words.)

While Wodehouse’s comedies are timeless, I think we can all relate to the absurdities and funny situations which arise in the Wooster and Jeeves universe. Wodehouse set his Wooster-and-Jeeves comedies in a time in which he was familiar—England’s Edwardian era. 

In Jeeves in the Offing, Wodehouse quickly sets a humorous tone with the dialogue of a simple telephone call between Bertram “Bertie” Wooster, our loveable protagonist, and his Aunt Dahlia. After answering and establishing the identity of the caller, Bertie greets her warmly with “A very hearty pip-pip to you, old ancestor.” So starts this comedic tale which will be filled with frustrated lovers, a lie, a libelous article, and purloined items, along with a spot of blackmail.

Wherever Bertie goes, trouble is soon to follow. Bertie is honorable and lovable, but his Wooster Code of Honor (let's call it the W.C.H.) tends to land him in dire straits where he has to call upon his faithful and erudite butler, Jeeves, to help disentangle him or his friends from a predicament. In the foreword of Wodehouse on Crime, Isaac Asimov says the code of honor includes never sullying a woman’s name and promptly responding to situations with “act of chivalry and kindness.” Because of the Code, Bertie goes along with harebrained schemes against his better judgment.

Although readers love him, Wooster’s English landscape is positively littered with people who for one reason or another loathe the fellow. While Bertie is an intellectual lightweight, he has plenty of admirable qualities--chief among them that he isn't above a spot of larceny for a good cause. 

July 25, 2007

Blog-a-Book: ’He that lives must mourn’

Prayinghands The titles of the two poems by Charlotte Brontë (author of Jane Eyre) in The Book of Uncommon Prayer tell a heartbreaking story: "On the Death of Anne Brontë" and "On the Death of Emily Brontë." In the space of about eight months, Charlotte's brother had died of alcohol- and drug-related illness, and both of her brilliant and beloved sisters, with whom she had lived and worked so closely, had died of tuberculosis. Two other sisters had died in childhood, and their mother had died when Charlotte was five. (Charlotte herself, the longest-lived of all her siblings, would die shortly before her fortieth birthday.)

The tragedies that overshadowed Charlotte's life grant a special power and poignancy to the lines that show her battered but unshaken faith (from the poem to Emily):

My darling, thou wilt never know
The grinding agony of woe
  That we have borne for thee.
Thus may we consolation tear
E'en from the depth of our despair
  And wasting misery. . . .

Then since thou art spared such pain
We will not wish thee here again;
  He that lives must mourn.
God help us through our misery
And give us rest and joy with thee
  When we reach our bourne!

July 24, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Purpose: How To Save a Life

Peacock2 Sally Fitzgerald, the compiler of O’Connor’s letters, notes that when she placed Flannery on the train to return to her Milledgeville, Georgia, home, she was “smiling perhaps a little wanly but wearing her beret at a jaunty angle.” Less then a week later, the Fitzgeralds received the news that Flannery was dying of lupus. The cocky hat of O’Connor’s ambitions and hopes now seemed to lie in the shadows of the valley into which her life had been plunged.

As I read the letters that surrounded this time, they resonated with me, fresh from the antiseptic stench of hospital halls myself, where my grandma is fighting the debilitating effects of a massive stroke. Fitzgerald notes, “As she emerged from the crisis…she began to communicate again herself -- chiefly on the subject of her novel, which had never been much out of her mind, even when the lupus attack was most severe.” I can practically see Enoch Emery, his flushed pimply face rising out of an ape suit, regarding Flannery from the foot of her hospital bed. But still, it was he and his "wise blood," as well as every other character and the novel itself, that formed a heavy rope of purpose that pulled Flannery through. Were it not for such gifts of purpose, how would we survive these times of pain? It is such gifts that wrap 75-year-old fingers and hands pierced with IV tubing around the frame of a metal hospital bed with a grip of iron. The gifts of a novel, a character, a grandchild’s hands on the forehead, a hymn hummed softly over a gray head, a hat at a jaunty angle, a desire to live.

While she lay recovering in Baldwin Memorial hospital, Flannery wrote to a friend, “I don’t believe in time no more much so it’s all one to me…” She had passed through a deep place in her life, a river that had not overcome her and a fire that had not burned her. In a darkened ICU ward, these words of Isaiah 43 were shafts of light. I read them softly but they glowed with their own power. “When you walk the waters, I will be with you and when you pass through the rivers they will not overcome you.” The sun tipped through the west-facing windows, setting my grandma’s hand holding mine awash in gold. In that second, I sensed the strong ropes that were pulling her back and in Whose hands they ultimately lay. She squeezed my hand, her breathing deep and joyful, and I knew she wasn’t pulling alone.

July 23, 2007

Blog-a-Book: ’Cyrano,’ Act I, Scenes I and II

Cyrano2 "Hey! That'll be fifteen sous!"

That's how Cyrano starts out, and I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I'm not even sure what (a) sous is/are. But we are at a playhouse, and this opening demand is made to a member of the royal family who claims exemption to an admission fee. The nerve. The next patron through the door refuses payment as well: "Musketeer. We get in free."

For the rest of the opening two scenes, we are eavesdropping around the theater, while the viewers settle in for their show. It is a bit chaotic, but nearly every character introduced -- however briefly -- seems to have some elements in common: self-exaltation and a need for attention. It is almost as if they jumped from the page, grabbed Edmond Rostand's pen, and proclaimed, "Write about me, I am important!"

Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that our heroes do not appear until Scene II -- and Cyrano only by mention, and only by what has the feel of backhanded flattery.

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Blog-a-Book: The Beauty of God’s Tapestry

Tickingtimewoman Okay. To be honest, reading Jennifer Marshall’s book, Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century, has been one of the best things I’ve done this summer. It’s encouraging me in this time of singleness in my life, and giving me perspective on our generation and how we view marriage, life, and romance and dating in general.

It makes you think about your life and where you’re at with the Lord, and also what it means to be devoted to Him first and worldly romance second, or third or fourth or fifth if family, friends, and work happen to be more of a priority, depending on who you are and how your worldview shapes your life (kudos to Worldview Week and Centurions weekend for that sentence!).

I must admit, I’m a “people-watcher.” I love to just sit with a couple of my friends with a good book or my laptop and “discreetly” observe everyone around me. People are so interesting. Like the couple holding hands who walk by with two small children running around their ankles and hanging on them every two seconds. Or the family of six that sit down for a bite to eat at the restaurant near me, bringing a hard-to-suppress smile to my face as I watch their family dynamic in action. Or, my friends and I giggle at the random good-looking guy who walks by us.

Finally, I can’t help but wonder to myself if someday I’ll be like the cute old couple walking side by side down the sidewalk, holding hands and supporting each other as they go. Then, because it always comes back to this, I wonder if I’ll end up alone. That thought is hard. Marshall asks this question in her book. She asks several women from across the country to talk about how they feel about the thought of not being married in ten years or less. Some reflected sadness, discouragement, disappointment, depression and dread. Others hadn’t even considered the possibility.

Life takes unexpected turns. But God is there in the midst of them. These are twists of life that we never would have expected for ourselves. We never would have imagined we would be where we are today, and we have no idea what will happen tomorrow. That’s what’s beautiful about how God works. It’s a perfect tapestry, woven together strand by strand, one piece, one moment, one day at a time, each string as beautiful and unique as the one before it.

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Blog a book: ’A Tale of Two Cities’

Two_cities Okay, so after much procrastinating, I’ve started reading A Tale of Two Cities. Last Friday, after my hard drive crashed and went to hard-drive heaven (will I be reunited with my data in the world to come?), I read chapter one. It was the shortest of first chapters, it was the longest of first chapters. So bottom line: the year is 1775 and our story is set in London and Paris.

After finishing chapter one, I said to myself, “I just can’t handle this today.” I put the book down and picked up Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory, which I promptly finished on Saturday. I loved it (Volf…not Dickens). Volf’s book is an absolute must-read. But I will write more on that later.

On Tuesday morning, I slogged through chapter two. While I can’t say I enjoyed it, I can say that “blunderbuss” is quite a fun word and was used several times. I looked it up and found that it is derived from the Dutch “donderbus,” another word I’ll be adding to my vocabulary just for the fun of it. While it literally means a kind of gun, I think it sounds more like a nice hardy insult. As in, “What were you thinking, you donderbus!” At least that would have been my answer had we been playing Balderdash. Here are a few other phrases I picked up in chapter two: “So ho!”; “Yo there!”; “Answer straight,”; “D’ye mind me?”; “A blazing strange answer”; and “You’d be in a blazing bad way.” So other than those little jewels I can’t say I got much out of chapter two.

Continue reading ...

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July 20, 2007

Book Blogging: Chesterton’s Father Brown

Fatherbrown I'm running behind on our book blogging. I spent a good bit of last week at CBA (otherwise known as the International Christian Retail Show) and got behind on everything. Thankfully, I didn't see any Jesus action figures, though there were plenty of other um... interesting products.

This summer I'm reading Chesterton's Father Brown: The Essential Tales. (Allen -- you start with Orthodoxy, I'll start with mystery stories! ;-) )

The first Chesterton I read was a wonderful introduction he did to one of Austen's juvenile stories, Love and Freindship [sic]. I happened to find it at the Chawton House Library during a day of decidedly non-scholarly research, and thought to myself, Oh, right, I need to read more Chesterton.

I am four pages in, and I'm loving it already. (Of course, I had to pry myself away from re-reading the last Harry Potter before tonight's big release.) It's one of those books I got from the library but now want to own all for myself. 

The biographical notice at the front informed me that Chesterton dropped out of college to freelance fulltime, that he wrote just about anything and everything -- poetry, plays, biographies (including one of Dickens, which I may read -- perhaps I would find his life more compelling than his writing -- ha!), theology, and fiction. He was revered by Auden and C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot.

At any rate, I am hooked. Do you have a favorite Father Brown story? I welcome your recommendations. Or if you're looking for a great summer read -- buy this book and join the conversation!

Re: Amy Tan’s ’The Opposite of Fate’

Kris -- Glad you're enjoying reading Tan. I found the stories of her mother's history and her friend's death incredibly compelling. You can feel her grief in the book, and sense the love between her and her mom in spite of all the craziness.

Blog-a-Book: Washing Machines and Flannery O’Connor

Peacock2 I was reflecting with a quiver in my lip over the strangely restorative ravages of correction worked upon a prospective article, like a child sulking that its filthy blanket has been taken away to the washing machine. With more than a touch of melodrama, I mentally bemoaned the process as “bloody.” I sought solace in conjuring up widely flung metaphors about the severed limbs of newborn children and the free-flowing arteries of ideas.

In this somewhat wide-eyed wanderer state, I turned to Flannery, sure of meeting understanding in the slight-framed heroine of my writing ambitions. Instead I received, over her round glasses, with that slight Southern sauce on the edges of her words, the plaintive remark: “I have to write to understand what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don't know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it over again."

Subdued, I am forced to smile and choke down two truths: Editors were designed to brace up the soul, fortify the mind and create distaste for sloppy first tries, and secondly, whatever else my girl Flannery may be, she is not one to say what one wants to hear. I think both will take me far, the first with my life, and the second, with my progress through The Habit of Being, a collection of Miss O’Connor’s personal correspondence compiled by Sally Fitzgerald.

Lessons duly ingested, I think I’ll go set the machine to heavy-duty and put my blanket through another cycle.

July 19, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Amy Tan’s ’The Opposite of Fate’

Quill_pen The second section of Tan's book, “Changing the Past,” is largely about Tan’s mother and grandmother, both of whom had very difficult lives. Tan tells of an interviewer who asked her mother whether it was difficult to watch The Joy Luck Club, based loosely on her life. “Oh, no. My real life worser than this, so movie already much, much better.” In fact, recounting the death of her baby son, whose father (“that bad man”) was emotionally and physically abusive, Tan’s mother tells her she thought only, “Good for you, little one, you escaped. Good for you.”

Tan and her brother lived in constant fear that their mother would make good on her frequent threats to commit suicide. They later learned that their mother watched her own mother, a young widow who was raped by and then became a concubine to a wealthy man, commit suicide. Tan then writes: “I recently learned that in China today, a third of all deaths among women in rural areas are suicides. Nationwide, more than two million Chinese women each year attempt suicide, and 300,000 succeed. And in contrast to any other country, more women than men in China kill themselves.” She adds, “China as a society is loath to make shameful events public, so the real number is probably staggeringly higher.”

Tan begins this section with a quote from The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which begins “To the missionaries, we were Girls of New Destiny.” And I can’t help but think of the underground church movement, the missionaries who quietly share their faith while working in China, and those who adopt children from China, and I think of the hope and new destiny they offer to people who were born into a society so oppressive that death often seems the best option.

Lightening the tone, at her mother’s death, Tan writes about the things she will miss: “Who would be frank enough to warn that my husband might exchange me for a younger woman unless I forced him to buy me jewels so expensive it would be impossible for him to leave both me and the gems behind?” Her warning must have worked since Tan and her husband Lou have been married since 1974.

July 16, 2007

Jane Austen’s prayer

Prayinghands Still not quite out of the "A"s yet in The Book of Uncommon Prayer. Today there's a treat for all of us Austen fans: two of her prayers (which, as I posted in my last blog-a-book entry, were what helped inspire the compiling of the book in the first place).

This is a good passage to remember whenever we come face-to-face with the need for a little humility in our daily lives. And I have to smile at the phrase about "domestic comfort and innocent enjoyment," because even though I'm not as much of an Austen expert as I would like to be, it still just sounds so very Jane-like.

We thank thee with all our hearts for every gracious dispensation, for all the blessings that have attended our lives, for every hour of safety, health, and peace, of domestic comfort and innocent enjoyment. We feel that we have been blessed far beyond any thing that we have deserved; and though we cannot but pray for a continuance of all these mercies, we acknowledge our unworthiness of them and impore thee to pardon the presumption of our desires.

July 12, 2007

’Cyrano de Bergerac,’ a Prelude

Cyrano2 It occurs to me that, on more than one occasion, I've felt like I was playing the part of Cyrano, an invisible adviser or vicarious suitor in some diligent romantic pursuit. But it also occurs to me that I've never really known what part Cyrano has to play.

Like much of the world of great literature (including the Bible), Cyrano has become such a cultural cliche that many of us probably know more about it, ironically enough, through secondhand accounts and interpretations. I know I've never actually read the story or seen it performed, except by allusion in a thousand songs and films -- including, it seems, Pixar's latest offering, which one reviewer calls "Cyrano de Spice Rack."

So it seems worth discovering what the tale is actually about. I do have a great affinity for other stories set in post-Renaissance Europe -- namely Count of Monte Cristo, Les Miserables, and The Three Musketeers -- and their deference to chivalry and heroism. They also wrestle with profound moral, spiritual, and political questions that confront readers or viewers of every age. I expect Cyrano will, perhaps in a light-hearted manner, offer the same.

Thus, without further adieu, on to Act I...

July 11, 2007

Not so Great Expectations for ’A Tale of Two Cities’

Dickens Like most young kids, my first introduction to Dickens was A Christmas Carol. As a fourth-grader my legs dangled from the plush velvet theater chairs (the kind that you couldn't keep down with all the concentrated mass of your nine year-old body) of Ruth Eckerd Hall as I got my first taste not only of Dickens, but of real live theater. So when in ninth grade my English teacher told us that we would be reading Great Expectations, I dove in with delicious excitement. I remember liking the book in the beginning. Intrigued by the curious character of the "Conwict" and the sympathetic Pip and Joe, I found intriguing and well-drawn characters. By the time the book introduced the eccentric Miss Havisham and haughty Estella, I was even more fascinated. I couldn't wait for the story ahead.

But then something happened. The plot began to drag. There was chapter after chapter of unnecessary meandering, extra characters. I grew impatient. But mostly I grew sleepy. That was the year I got up at 4:45am to catch a 5:45 bus to school for over an hour commute to my magnet school that started at 7:15. After school was out there'd be theater practice til 5 pm, an hour long commute home, a quick family dinner, and then hitting the books until my eyelids couldn't stay open any more. That was the year I read Great Expectations. To try and stay awake during the middle of the book I began reading standing up or I'd move around our house looking for someplace uncomfortable, someplace where I couldn't fall asleep. My mom found me one night fully clothed and sitting in the bathtub; I had been trying to find some place uncomfortable enough that I wouldn't fall asleep reading Great Expectations. Somehow I managed to make it through. And the book did seem to redeem itself if you had the patience of Job and the caffeination of Jolt to make it to the third section.

That year I also learned that Dickens was paid by the word and published his novels in serial format (three chapters at a time). I decided that I too would have been verbose and circuitous if paid by the word and published this way, so I grew sympathetic, though still annoyed, by the highly esteemed Dickens. (Dare I disparage his revered name!) The next year I read Hard Times. Again I had to employ the uncomfortable reading strategy to make it through the novel.

In college I managed to pass for an English major without having to read much more Dickens--or at least if I did I've blocked out the painful memory. But I did learn that if you are an English major you must speak of Dickens in hushed and reverent tones or suffer the scorn of your profs and classmates. The heavens must have witnessed my inward distaste for Dickens. Because as a special curse from the literature gods when I taught high school English, what was on the course syllabus as mandatory for ninth graders? Yep, you guessed it... Great Expectations. Let's just say my enthusiasm was more quarantined than contagious and I was more than sympathetic to the complaints of the tortured freshmen, I "meantersay" poor lads.

The ghosts of English class past seem to have visited me once again this Christmas, when my friend (and fellow blogger Kristine) noting my (gasp) distaste for Dickens purchased me (and my other friend and fellow blogger, Lori) A Tale of Two Cities as a special wicked little Christmas gift. Scrooge that I am, I thought about trading in the book and putting the money in a special interest-earning investment fund. Anyhow, these past six months of the constant haunting, howling, and chalk-board scratching of the ghosts of English teachers past and friends present has been enough to convince me that I need to read A Tale of Two Cities for our blog-a-book challenge, if for no other reason than to vanish the specters and remain always a Scrooge when it comes to my Dickensophile friends. Well, anyhow, that's the long answer as to why I'm procrastinating tonight. Maybe I'll start tomorrow. The good news is that today I'm the owner of a very uncomfortable couch. Perhaps that will help. If not, there's always blogging from the bathtub.

July 10, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Perseverance, Confidence, and a Sand Dune

SanddunepersonwalkingIn the last chapter of her book, “Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century,” Jennifer Marshall gives a powerful example of what it is like to either continue to yearn for love and yearn for things that haven’t yet come in your life, or focus on what’s happening right now.

This is illustrated by picturing yourself climbing a sand dune. Now, one thing you should know about this kind of “hill”: It’s not as easy as it looks. Instead of climbing on a sturdy, solid mound of dirt and grass, a sand dune gives way under each step, filling in, making every step deep and unsteady, requiring great effort from the climber. Marshall says:

A teacher who had grown up spending summers at the dunes gave us strategy for conquering them. If you look too far ahead up the dune, he cautioned, you’ll only get discouraged when the destination never seems to get any closer. Look down at the ground immediately in front of your feet, and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. Then take a rest every so often and look back to see the ground you’ve gained.

Marshall comments on this. “Life requires the same strategy: faithful perseverance to keep putting one foot in front of the other.” She is right on. Perseverance requires making each step in full faith that God will provide when the time is right.

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Blog-a-Book: ’The Book of Uncommon Prayer’

Prayinghands As I was saying to Lori yesterday, I'm always interested in coming across representations of faith in literature. It's not like you have to look very hard -- with many of the classics, such representations are often right there on the surface, or if not, at least you can get a clear sense through the characters' actions and thoughts how their religious faith affects them.

That's a major reason I chose to blog about The Book of Uncommon Prayer: Meditations and Devotions from Jane Austen, Daniel Defoe, Ben Jonson, C. S. Lewis, William Wordsworth, and 54 Other Classic Writers, recommended by Kim. The editors, Constance and Daniel Pollock, write in the introduction (you'll love this, Lori):

The idea for this book was born about six weeks after our daughter Jane. Searching for special prayers to use at her baptism, we uncovered some lovely devotions in the works of Jane Austen, composed by the novelist herself. This aroused our curiosity about how other classic writers might have voiced their spiritual yearnings and relationship to God.

To my mind, this is a terrific idea for a prayer book. At the same time, knowing that some of these authors were not what you would call strictly orthodox in their beliefs, I wonder how this will affect the selections in the book. For instance, we start with Louisa May Alcott (the editors go more or less in alphabetical order). Now, if you look at the faith shown by the family in Little Women, it looks very much like your standard Christian faith, with lots of praying and Bible reading going on. (The two religious poems here that Louisa wrote when she was eleven seem to bear out this impression.)

In real life, though, it doesn't take much research to discover that Daddy Alcott raised all his "little women" to be good little Transcendentalists. Much has been written about how Bronson Alcott was far too spiritual to waste much thought on trifling matters like providing for his family, with the result that they had to provide for him. But for all his odd ideas about religion and the toll they took on his family, he was still interested in the Gospels and paid tribute to their wisdom, though he didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus. So I've sometimes wondered whether Louisa, who by turns honored and satirized her father in her work, was showing respect for him or rebelling against him with her more conventional presentation of religion. At least for me, it's not easy to tell.

One thing at least is clear: As the title implies, this is going to be no ordinary prayer book.

July 09, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Considering the "Now" vs. the "Not Yet"

Tickingtimewoman Okay, time to start this book blogging! Now, the question is, where to start? Maybe with the beginning?

Jennifer Marshall’s book, Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century, is one that relates to me personally as well as (I feel) a huge percentage of women around the world.

When I first heard of it, however, I was skeptical. I’m single, so I knew it could potentially apply to me. However, I wondered if it wasn’t just like every other advice book out there for women in the areas of romance, dating and relationships. I wondered, “What is different about this book compared to the others already out there?”

In order to answer this question for myself, I obviously had to start reading. What I discovered wasn’t some measly, pathetic advice on how-to-get-a-guy or tips on sex and seduction, but rather a guide to growing closer to God, dealing with the “why's” of romance and rejection, and finding contentment in the “now” period of your life rather than always wishing for the “not yet.”

One thing that stood out to me almost immediately was the introduction. Here Marshall talks about each person’s unique life callings. Life is full of callings. God has a perfect plan for everyone.

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Blog-a-Book: Amy Tan’s ’The Opposite of Fate’

Quill_pen My decision to blog Amy Tan’s book The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life was only natural. After all, I know so much about Tan. I know she is the author of a wildly successful novel, which I have never read, which was made into a very successful movie, which I have never seen. I think it was about Chinese women and I’m pretty sure it was written in English. Oh, and I know Tan is in a rock band with Stephen King and Dave Barry. That alone should make her book worth reading.

Despite my woeful ignorance of (according to the back cover) “one of the world’s best-loved novelists,” reading the introduction and first section of the book “Fate and Faith,” I feel already like Tan and I could be friends. In fact, I think I’ll call her Amy. I love Amy’s sense of humor, the groan-worthy puns, the irony, the sarcasm. She just sounds like a fun person who would hang out at Panera with my writing friends.

In “the cliffsnotes version of my life,” Amy is shocked to discover that her book The Joy Luck Club has attained the status of having its own Cliff’s Notes booklet. In Cliff, she reads nonsense about the hidden depth and messages of her novel, making her (and me) wonder how Cliff’s other subjects would react if they read his version of their great works. She then gives us the real Cliff’s Notes of her early years.

Both her parents were originally from China, but their backgrounds were very different. Her father was a Christian, the son and grandson of Chinese evangelists, who carried his faith close to his heart until his death. Her mother held onto more traditional Eastern beliefs in fate, ghosts, and reincarnation. Amy straddled these two worlds until her father died when she was still young, after which her spiritual world revolved around manipulating Ouija boards for her mother’s enlightenment.

Amy writes: “These days I realize that faith and fate have similar effects on the believer. They suggest that a higher power knows the next move and that we are at the mercy of that force.” I think this is true and that one of the main differences between the Christian faith and fatalistic religions is that in Christ we have a God who is not only above us, but who became one of us. The incarnation means that we have a God who loves us fiercely (why else would He leave the majesty of heaven and enter our messy world, especially for the purpose for which He came?) and who understands our frailty. Because of that, we can trust in His goodness and beneficence.

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July 03, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Summer reading challenge

Book Perhaps you heard Chuck Colson talking today about BreakPoint's new summer reading list. Here's the commentary, in case you didn't -- and here's the list, compiled of all those book suggestions we tossed around the last few weeks. 

And here's a challenge for those of you who love to read:

Next week a group of us bloggers, along with two guest bloggers from our internship program, are starting "Blog-a-Book." It's an idea we got from Slate's "Blog the Bible" feature, although our vision is just a bit less ambitious. Each of us has selected a book from the new reading list and, for nine weeks (starting July 9), will be reading it and writing about it here on the blog.

We'd like to challenge you to join us. If you're game, choose a book from the list and blog along with us! You can use the comment section on any of our Blog-a-Book posts to log your thoughts and impressions on what you're reading. Some of your comments may be quoted on the main blog site as well.

Click on the link below to find out what we're reading . . .

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